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The Meaning of Disruption and Social Fiction

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Several of the Skoll Award Social Entrepreneurship Award winners at this year's "Disruption" themed World Forum meet the classic definition crafted by HBS's Clayton Christenson of disruption - serving customers who are ignored by the existing business models. Bihar, India's World Health Partners links remote village "informal" health workers with physicians in telemedicine networks, while Africa's Basic Needs creates community based mental health treatment models in a continent almost devoid of psychiatrists.

Salman Khan of the Khan Academy has already distributed 240 million of his on line learning modules which, in his vision, suggest that within a decade every student in the world could get the same quality of education as the globe's most privileged. (Bill Gates' children use Khan modules; so do orphans in Mongolia.)

But for others, what they are disrupting is not markets, but accepted social norms and even ways of creating change.

Carne Ross of Independent Diplomat argues that the closed world of diplomacy as currently structured is a racket which must be opened up by equipping those who are treated by diplomats as pins on a map to be moved around with the tools to get to the table in forums like the UN Security Council.

For Grameen Bank's Muhammed Yunus the essence of social entrepreneurship is "social fiction" - he argues that the rapid scientific progress of the past 20 years was fuelled by science fiction, and we now need an equivalent genre, one which imagines a world without AIDS and illiteracy, one in which there is only a museum to remember poverty, and which inspires us to invent the tools which will create that future.

Brazil's former Environment Minister, Marina Silva, now the head of the Sustainability Party, suggests that the wired, connected world has enabled a new form of social activism, what she calls "authored", individually distributed action as opposed to "directed" change, based on hierarchical movements with mass mobilization. She sees advantages - the new forms require much less reliance on coercion, shame and conformity - but also pitfalls, in the form of extreme individualism and dissipated energy.

Molly Melching of the Senegal focused development group Tostaan argues that when norms which hold communities together must be challenged, disruption may be most effective if it is actually propagated through existing social networks - rather than by early adaptors assuming that such networks are locked into the status quo. In effect Tostan hijacks the incumbents instead of displacing them to achieve disruptive social change.

And molecular biologist Richard Jefferson of Cambia audaciously wants to disrupt the entire closed system of intellectual property with his Initiative for Open Innovation. Calling it 'innovation cartography', Jefferson says , "We must make it possible for virtually anyone to understand the landscapes of science, intellectual property, business, regulation and other innovation 'intelligence' that is necessary to make creative enterprise a possibility at all levels of society."

So social entrepreneurs have taken Christenson's concept and broadened it - but the conversation in Oxford feels like the beginning of a new understanding, not its maturation - Silva's work, for example, feels like practically the first effort to combine the concepts of classical liberation theory and Marxism with the opportunities of the wired world - but it's a very yeasty beginning indeed.

A veteran leader in the environmental movement, Carl Pope spent the last 18 years of his career at the Sierra Club as CEO and chairman. He's now the principal advisor at Inside Straight Strategies, looking for the underlying economics that link sustainability and economic development. Mr. Pope is co-author -- along with Paul Rauber --of Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress,which the New York Review of Books called "a splendidly fierce book."

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